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Joanna Breslin

Joanna Breslin, CMS Level 3 Advanced Sommelier and WSET Level 3 Advanced 

I grew up in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood’s dominant feature is the University of Chicago, and I went to their school for kids K-12. I then became a college dropout hippie. I went to northern California, and when I eventually began my return to the real world, I was living in Sonoma County, surrounded by wine, in which I had not yet taken an interest. A few years later, I found myself back in Chicago. Deciding to complete my college degree, I learned to tend bar as a means of supporting myself. My place of instruction was a dumpy blues joint, and my teacher was an out-of-work actor. This was not mixology. The most important thing he taught me was how to occupy a busy space, which I believe is fundamental to restaurant work. Moving on to a more genteel environment, I began tasting wines that were being poured by the glass. This led to becoming a distributor sales rep, selling a large and diverse portfolio which exposed me to the world of wine. I returned to California and was encouraged by a Master Sommelier to pursue my wine education. 

Preparing for the MS Introductory exam helped to consolidate my wine knowledge. When I received the top score in a group of fifty, I felt mandated to take the study of wine as far as I could.

At that time I was selling an international portfolio of wine to top accounts in San Francisco. I had the great good fortune to be calling on Larry Stone MS at Rubicon. Raj Parr was working there and beginning his meteoric ascent to the firmament of winedom. I was permitted to join their Saturday staff tastings. 

 

In order to pass the CMS Advanced exam, you had better have some experience on the floor of a restaurant, which I did not. Larry was consulting for a newly-opened restaurant: Ana Mandara. He created the wine list and did monthly staff training, but there was no one there every day to lead the wine program. He set me up to moonlight a few nights a week. I was still working for the distributor, but I enjoyed the restaurant, and it took over my life. I quit the sales job and became the wine director. Over the course of eight years, I won many awards for the wine list, which expanded from 100 to 400 wines.

Then 2008 happened. I immediately was laid off when the market crashed, and cobbled together several broker portfolios to become a reluctant entrepreneur.

Fast forward to five years on, when I returned to Chicago, entirely broke, and took the first job I was offered, at Binny’s, a large, family owned retailer with 50+ local stores. I had never worked in wine retail, and shared the commonly-held attitude that restaurants were better than retail. Stocking and dusting the shelves was humbling and Zen-like. Soon I was doing a lot of the purchasing for the store, and leading customers through it to fill their shopping carts with whatever I recommended. Hey, this was fun too!

I jumped on the opportunity to become the wine buyer for Plum Market’s Chicago location. In an upscale grocery owned by two brothers in Michigan whose dad was in the wine business, this was not your usual grocery store wine department. Madeline Triffon MS, who was my advisor when I passed the MS Advanced, is their Director of Events. We spoke often and tasted together whenever she was in Chicago. 

Five years later, the store was forced to close. We had been kicked out of our space by a not-quite legit-seeming agreement between the landlord and a Chicago empire-building mogul. The community was outraged, petitions were circulated, but to no avail.

It didn’t take long for me to land my next job – in a restaurant. Though glad to be qualified, and fortunate not to be out of work, this was no longer what I wanted to do. As fate would have it, I suffered a fall and was recovering and receiving Workers Comp when suddenly the restaurant closed.

So. I am now working part-time at the venerable House of Glunz, established in 1888. It is the oldest family-owned wine store in Chicago and perhaps in the country. You may find me there pouring wine for weekly tastings, and guiding guests through the small but carefully chosen – by Barbara Glunz – selection of wine and spirits. 

Meet the other judges

Liz Kowal

Wine Certificate Instructor, Hospitality at College of DuPage